When Buzz and Test Scores Aren’t Good


In the weeks before a film’s release, there’s often a buzz around town, either that a film has “tested through the roof” or that it’s tested so badly the studio is re-shooting the ending. But since test screening results are usually confidential, few outsiders see the profound influence the scores--and recommendations by the testing group--have on the creative process.

Just ask David Nutter, director of this summer’s teen thriller “Disturbing Behavior,” a film he says was cut to ribbons by MGM Pictures after the movie performed poorly in early test screenings. Released July 24 at a skeletal 75 minutes, plus end credits, the film received thumbs-down reviews and has so far earned a lackluster $17 million at the box office.

Nutter is openly critical about MGM’s handling of the film, particularly its reliance on data from the National Research Group, the Los Angeles-based firm that provides studios with research information.


“Once they were afraid the picture wasn’t going to do well, they were in such a position of fear that they just responded to the NRG,” Nutter says. “If [NRG co-chairman] Joe Farrell said, ‘Cut any scenes with adults,’ they’d tell me, ‘Cut all scenes with adults.’ It became like the 11th Commandment: If Joe Farrell says it, you do it.”

MGM President Michael Nathanson insists “Disturbing Behavior” is not a case of the “big bad studio” mistreating a first-time film director. “It’s patently untrue to say the studio ruined this film or abused the preview process,” he says. “We always knew there were things wrong with this movie--we didn’t need test scores to tell us that. We supported David above and beyond the call of duty, but unfortunately David didn’t understand how to please an audience.”

Beset by financial trouble and in the midst of a lean year at the box office, MGM had high hopes for “Disturbing Behavior.” The film was written by Scott Rosenberg (“Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead” and “Con Air”). Nutter was a key member of the “X-Files” team, having directed 15 episodes of the TV show, the pilot for “Millennium” and episodes of “ER.”

The film’s cast featured James Marsden, Nick Stahl and Katie Holmes, who as the co-star of the hit TV series “Dawson’s Creek,” was viewed as a magnet for teenage girls, the driving force behind such hits as “Scream” and “I Know What You Did Last Summer.”

MGM put “Disturbing Behavior” on a fast track. Nutter finished filming in late March, and says he delivered his cut to MGM in early May, giving up three of the 10 weeks directors are contractually entitled to when assembling their first cut of a film.

After the first screening, attended by studio executives and producers, Nutter says Nathanson loudly applauded and said, “This picture is phenomenal.”

Nathanson would not say how he responded. “Anyone who simply recounts a specific stage of the filmmaking process will get a distorted view of the process,” he said.

But the studio’s response changed after the film’s first research screening, held May 15 in Plano, Texas, for 324 moviegoers aged 15 to 24, the film’s target audience. In a confidential report to the studio, NRG said the film earned a “good” response among its under-18 viewers. It also said the film’s “excellent” ratings and “definite recommend” ratings, two key indicators of a film’s marketability, were “above average,” especially among young females.

But a close reading of NRG’s 20-page report revealed unsettling news. Negative comments about the film’s ending outnumbered positive ones by 2 to 1. Many viewers found the film’s resolution “too sad” and were unhappy that the rebel outsider played by Stahl died at the end. The audience did not like a sex scene between Holmes and Marsden, and found many parts of the movie “confusing,” especially flashback scenes involving Marsden’s dead brother.

Nutter responded by cutting the movie to 95 minutes, editing out the sex scene and shortening other unpopular sequences. Two weeks later, the studio had a second test screening in Westlake Village. The numbers were down in all categories. Studio marketers say that a movie is well-received if its “excellent” and “very good” ratings--known as “the top-two boxes”--add up to a number in the 80s or 90s. A high-70s number would be average; anything below 75 is cause for concern.

At the film’s first test screening, the movie’s top-two box numbers averaged 54; only under-18 girls gave the film a 72 rating. At the Westlake screening, the average top-two box scores were 37, with the under-18 girls scores down to 43. NRG advised “reducing the moments between action, suspense or scary scenes will likely boost the reaction among younger audiences, who become quickly restless with too much exposition. Judicious tightening . . . should make the audience’s enjoyment increase measurably.”


At this point, Nutter says, MGM took control of the film. He was instructed to shoot a new ending, which, responding to test-score reaction, brought Stahl back to life as a high school teacher. The film was cut to 77 minutes with the help of George Folsey Jr., MGM’s vice president of production editing. The trims largely followed the NRG advice, excising most of the flashbacks, exposition and scenes between teens and their parents.

“When the test scores were terrible, they panicked,” says one person closely involved in the production. “Nathanson was down in the editing room, looking at footage himself, saying, ‘Let’s get rid of this, let’s get rid of that.’ David made a lot of mistakes on the movie--he was overprotective of the film and totally mishandled his relations with the studio--but at least his cut made sense. MGM’s didn’t make sense at all.”

In June the studio had two more test screenings in Fallbrook in San Diego County. The numbers rose slightly, but remained below average. Moviegoers said the film was too predictable and lacked sufficient scares. The new ending was still unsatisfying. How was Stahl able to survive? And how did he become a teacher?

Nutter says he was so unhappy about MGM’s interference that he called the Directors Guild about the possibility of a pseudonym, but decided to stay on the picture. “I owed it to my actors and crew to see it through,” he said. “I wanted to protect what was left in the picture.”

Supporters of the film contend that Nutter deserves a significant share of the blame for the film’s failure. “MGM definitely had a big hand in the process and it was not always an enjoyable experience,” producer Jon Shestack says. “But even though they cut the movie to the bone, the movie still reflects David’s obsessions, strengths and shortcomings.”

Nutter says he envisioned the film as an atmospheric “X-Files”-style thriller. The studio, however, wanted a “Scream”-style teen shocker. “Their attitude was ‘Let’s just get to the fright beats,’ ” Nutter says. “They felt teenagers wouldn’t sit through a picture that was more than 90 minutes. I believe in the value of test screenings. But this was all about mathematics. If I was working on a scene that was two minutes long, they just said, ‘Cut it under a minute.’ ”


At the film’s fourth preview screening, on June 22, the film was 72 minutes. After the screening, Nutter says Folsey tried to be encouraging--look, he said, we didn’t have walkouts. Nutter’s reply: “Who had time to walk out?”

Nathanson says MGM had a fifth test screening for 400 people in Fallbrook on July 13, 11 days before the film opened. As a result of further studio-inspired editing, he says the film played better than it had done before, especially with its under-18 female audience. However, Nathanson would not divulge specific numbers. Both Nutter and Shestack say they had no knowledge of any fifth screening of the film.

Did the test-screening process encourage MGM, a studio eager for a hit, into dumbing down its movie? Or did the studio, having lost confidence in its filmmaker, simply try to satisfy as much of its target audience as possible?

“This was a movie for teen moviegoers and we made changes that pleased that particular audience,” Nathanson says. But Nutter, who is directing an episode of “ER,” believes that by trying to make the film more accessible, the studio made it forgettable.

“On the ‘X-Files’ our attitude always was respect the audience,” he says. “But MGM cut so much out of the picture that the audience stopped caring. They weren’t emotionally involved anymore. If Hitchcock were directing today, he’d be in trouble because everyone would be saying: Cut out the suspense, just get to the fright beats.”